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Mental Health Memo: 5 Back-to-School-Tips

"Mental Health Memo" column for August

This month’s author, Katie Anderson, is the Psychiatric Social Worker for the Adolescent Admissions Unit at the Human Services Center. Anderson is licensed as a Certified Social Worker Eligible for Private Independent Practice (CSW-PIP) and a Qualified Mental Health Professional (QMHP).

“Back to School” season can be full of excitement and new adventures, but, for some, the thought of going back to school can bring overwhelming feelings of anxiety about the unknown. This is not only true for kids who are transitioning from online to in-person learning this fall, but also for those who are simply entering junior high or high school for the first time.

Preparing them for what to expect (to the best of your ability) can help ease their anxiety. Below are five tips for supporting your child’s mental health while they transition back to school this fall.

  1. Limit Decision Fatigue The concept of “Decision Fatigue” suggests people have a limited amount of mental energy for making choices every day. The more decisions we need to make, the more our self-control skills become depleted. Whether deciding on a school outfit or what to eat for breakfast, it can be helpful to create a habit of planning ahead the night before, so they can save their mental energy for the classroom. 

  2. Get Physical Activity and Restful Sleep A consistent bedtime and the quality of the sleep-wake cycle are important for your child. Did you know exercise plays a significant role in this? Being physically tired is one of the best ways to achieve quality REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is key for your child’s learning and memory. For best results, ensure your child has several hours to wind down between exercising and going to bed for the night.

  3. Do a Test Run Consider what small, manageable steps you could take towards preparing them for the first day of school. Does their school hold an open house night for them to tour their new classroom and meet their teachers? Can you take a “test run” drive past their new school building? Although parents cannot prepare for every scenario their child may face, you can take this opportunity to get creative and have some fun by doing some sort of “dress rehearsal” together. This tip is not specific to elementary or high school, it can be a helpful tip for new college students as well.

  4. Schedule Fun The fun doesn’t have to end when summer break ends. Schedule events for your child to look forward to throughout the school year. Use a calendar or other visual reminder, such as a countdown, to see the fun event in relation to the current date. Focusing on activities that are specific to the fall months can make this transition more enjoyable as well. Planning a tailgate themed dinner to pair with a televised football game, camping in the backyard, or going on a fall themed scavenger hunt are just a few budget-friendly ideas that the whole family can look forward to this school year.

  5. Let them Feel their Feelings Most importantly, allow your child to feel their feelings. The beginning of the school year means relaxed schedules and warm temperatures are ending for the year - and it is ok to be bummed out about that! While finding the positives is important, it is equally important to sit with those uncomfortable emotions without needing to change or “fix” them. By creating a safe environment that allows for emotional expression, you can teach your child that temporary emotional discomfort does not need to be pushed away, hidden, or acted on.

By following these suggestions, you will help promote your child’s ability to adapt to this current transition and their ability to adapt to future life changes as they grow into young adults.

It is important to note prolonged sadness or distress that interferes with one’s day-to-day functioning is not a typical part of transitioning back to school. If you or your child is experiencing this, there are mental health resources available to support your family.

To learn more about resource options, visit dss.sd.gov and click on the Behavioral Health tab.
You can also visit 605Strong.com or dial 211 to reach the 211 Helpline Center.